The Dead Center (2018) – movie review

The Dead Center. Image credit: Courtesy of Variety The Dead Center. Image credit: Courtesy of Variety

You might know Shane Carruth from the two hyper-cerebral, ultra-logical sci-fi films he wrote and directed (Primer and Upstream Colour). Here, instead, he’s the lead actor in the Billy Senese-directed The Dead Center, a super low-budget horror movie that takes place in a sanatorium for the almost-entire runtime.

Distributed on Blu-Ray and DVD by Arrow Films, The Dead Center was made on a very shoestring budget. Set almost entirely within the walls of Metro General Hospital, a fictional sanatorium, the movie follows Daniel (Carruth), a psychiatrist whose compassion for patients often causes him to bend protocol. This is particularly the case with John Doe (Jeremy Childs), an unidentified person who claims to have died and come back to life, bringing something extremely evil with him. The movie also features another, minor storyline regarding a detective (Bill Feehely) who’s trying to solve a murder case where the corpse disappeared.

Continue reading and check my final grade below… 

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This is one of those horror films that sit well with critics, not so much with general audiences. Even though The Dead Center had been on my watchlist for a while, I was a bit sceptical about it due to the director’s previous film (Closer to God, 2014) not being very impressive to me. However, upon reading Mother of Movies’ review of the film, I bumped it up on my list of priorities. And I’m glad I did.

Even though I understand why some viewers might not find it very entrancing, I fell in love with some aspects of The Dead Center. Namely, the outstanding ability to make great use of the little budget at the filmmaker’s disposal.

While the possession angle and the storyline are rather unoriginal – which is a legitimate complaint from many people – the way the story is presented makes all the difference. The Dead Center manages to create a dreadful and unsettling atmosphere with the sole use of filmmaking techniques. The way the camera moves and camera angles vary during the opening scene gives the whole picture an impression of organised chaos: there isn’t a recognisable style in the way the film is shot, but this only elevates the suspension of disbelief within the context of the story. It makes you feel like you’re being held in the sanatorium with the other patients.

Only after the cinematography has established a suitably creepy atmosphere, soundtrack – very eerie and original – and disturbing imagery come into play. As opposed to relying on cheap jump-scares and formulaic stock sound-effects, The Dead Center creates quite a few scary sequences with the simple but expert use of filters, lighting and music.

Although the storyline and the way it unfolds are quite formulaic, this film manages to sneak in a couple of reveals that most people will enjoy. Personally, I found every twist in the movie to be rather predictable, but that didn’t ruin my experience as The Dead Center had much more going on than just plot twists and surprise elements.

Aside from a couple of minor issues (the cut-to-black editing style and the illogical timeline during the last few scenes), I think The Dead Center suffers only from two big problems. The first one is related to the budget, the other to the script.

In terms of budget, the filmmaking steps up and makes the film really interesting and enjoyable. However, the acting feels either too wooden or extremely over-the-top. With the exception of Shane Carruth and Poorna Jagannathan (in the role of Daniel’s boss at the hospital), every other performance felt weak and unconvincing. While this isn’t a big deal with extras, it kind of distracts from the film when the main “antagonist”, John Doe, doesn’t do a very good job acting-wise.

When it comes to the script, the main issue revolves around character development. The Dead Center features a couple of scenes where characters speak to each other about other characters as a way to spell out to the audience their personality. It’s very exposition-heavy and it feels detached from the rest of the film. In my opinion, a picture like this didn’t need this kind of character development: just like Dunkirk (2017) or Climax (to keep it to horror cinema), The Dead Center should’ve focused entirely on the events, letting the audience infer all the information necessary from the characters’ behaviour.

That said, The Dead Center shows once again that talent and ideas can shine even with severe budget limitations. Movies like this one, Here Comes Hell and Starfish – to name a few I reviewed recently – make the best of the situation: they put extra-effort to hide structural issues and, as a result, they become good films.

The Dead Center                               7/10

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